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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Trouble for the NBA -- Updated

Update (original posted one day earlier):

More from NBA Commissioner David Stern on the NBA's money woes.

From this once-upon-a-time-more-interested-than-he-is-now fan, the following:
  • Too many teams = dilution of talent
  • Too many teams making the playoffs = anticlimactic regular season
  • Too many games = makes each individual game less meaningful (especially given how many teams make the playoffs)
  • Too expensive (tickets) = makes it hard for a family of four to go to a game regularly
  • Too much made-for-ESPN's-Top-10-Plays basketball = a product that's not as compelling as the college game. What coach who wants to teach his young players how to play the game well will recommend an NBA game over watching a Top 10 college team?
  • Too much "entertainment" = Most fans wouldn't take their daughters or wives to a strip club, so why would they want to subject them to the dancers that the teams deploy?
  • Too many empty seats = Confirmation that points one through five have some merit.
  • Too many tattoos (probably) = Whether or not you agree with a player's right to express himself under the First Amendment, these probably turn off a bunch of the fans.

So, reduce the number of teams, the number of teams making the playoffs, the number of games, the prices of tickets and emphasize good basketball, games that have meaning, and an affordable product. And chuck the dancing girls and the silly between periods gimmicks and DJ's in the stands that many teams use. I still don't think that simply reducing players' salaries is the answer. The NBA needs an overhaul.

Ah, so someone might argue "what are you talking about?" because about 90,000 fans will attend tonight's All-Star game. That has to be a sign of the league's popularity and health. It's not, because it's a statement that American fans love to go to events (as opposed to individual games), so it's a fun thing to do, to take your grandchildren or children to an All-Star game. Lord knows, most fans probably would see it better on TV than from the nosebleeds at Jerry Jones' new monument to himself, but come to think of it, the monument is a draw, too.

That same person might argue, "but the NBA is popular internationally." But what does that really mean? So, they sell a few jerseys in China, but as Commissioner Stern said, the league is losing money. (Even if he is the one who touts the league's international popularity). That leads me to a story. I once worked with a guy who split time between Philadelphia and New York. He told the Philadelphia people he was busy in New York and the New York people he was busy in Philadelphia, but as best as I could tell, he didn't have a lot of traction in either city, and dividing his time didn't pay dividends. The NBA needs to strengthen its core for it to be strong elsewhere.

And that person might argue that the entertainment is part of it. Sure, but even 18-35 year-old men want to see a good product on the floor (i.e., the guys in short pants who are playing the game). They won't watch so-so basketball forever. But if they were to go to a well-regarded movie or a concert or even, heaven forbid for that demographic, a play, they'll get a guaranteed product. You don't always get that with the NBA.

To quote Kurtis Blow, "basketball is my favorite sport." But the NBA is in a downturn, and it needs a new business plan that involves more than just cutting player salaries.

Original Post:

The league and the players' union don't seem to be in sync regarding the next collective bargaining agreement.

Normally, most fans don't pay attention to the legal stuff. Most fans normally think that the owners are rich, they have plenty of money to pay the players, that the teams are a hobby so why run them for a profit, and that ultimately there is plenty of money to go around. All they care about is having a competitive team in their city (which most cities, by the way, do not have).

Now, though, fans should be concerned. Despite Bill Simmons' elegy of Commissioner David Stern, the NBA is in trouble. Oh, sure, their marketing is hip, but if the ads sway you, then do you also buy a steak in a restaurant purely for the sizzle? Yes, the merchandise is cool, but what about the underlying product itself. Or, is the product an entertainment extravaganza, thereby making me (a hoops purist) an old geezer, because I do expect more than ESPN highlights when I go to a game. I expect no traveling, good defense, picks that are set well, rolls from the picker, on-ball screens, off-ball screens, and all that sort of stuff. But the NBA seems to be about a much more complicated algorithm than just pure basketball.

The NBA is competing for the marginal sports dollar of the fans. I've blogged about this before, but the NBA, NHL, professional tennis and golf (if Tiger Woods can't repair his image) are competing against college football, college basketball, the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR for that extra sports dollar.

And it's failing.

Isn't it?

Because if it were succeeding, wouldn't it be fighting with the players' union about increasing the salary cap number? Wouldn't there be plenty of money to go around? The proposal that the league put on the table suggests a far different picture of the league's health from what David Stern's propaganda suggests.

And that should trouble owners, players and fans alike.


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